La Grande Illusion

Directed by Jean Renoir

France, 1937

Cornerhouse, 27 May 2012

La Grande Illusion

There are moments in this film that will stay with you forever – and not just a few, mind, but a score or so, easy.

Think of the woman showing off a wall of photographs, all uniformed men (including her husband) who’ve fallen in battle, then turning to her young daughter, eating alone at the kitchen table.  Of the silence that descends on a group of prisoners of war when a young soldier walks out dressed in women’s attire.  Or the German guard who gives the French prisoner a harmonica to play with, to cheer him up.  That’s three, among many.

Though often billed as an anti-war film, Renoir’s masterpiece is not quite as simple as all that.  What it does is look at people during wartime, there’s almost no polemic element to it at all.  Some people wish war were over, of course, but for others war is an engaging sport or even a welcome salvation: Erich von Stroheim’s German officer, for one, thrives during wartime.  To settle on any one view is to simplify what is a richly complex, deeply humanistic work of art.  This is the kind of film Montaigne might have made.

La Grande Illusion is showing again on Wednesday as part of the Matinee Classics season, further details here.